Only one more year of this crap, I thought as I looked out the window of the school bus. One more year and I’ll be in high school. One more year and this will all be behind me.
It was the Tuesday after Labor Day. It was also my first day of eighth grade, and I was already counting the days until graduation. I’d only turned thirteen a month before, and the growth spurt that I’d been praying for all summer still hadn’t kicked in. My mother, father and sister Alyson were all tall, but here I was, finally a teenager, and my height had only just crept over the five-foot mark.
There were a lot of fifth-graders on the bus with me, and most of them were acting like idiots, so I just tuned them out. It was a little grating having to attend the same school as ten-year-olds, but that’s how the middle-school system in my area worked. I was thankful the fifth- and sixth- graders had their own classrooms and playground on the other side of the school … I don’t think I could deal with that level of jackassery all the time. Thank God the really little kids went to school somewhere else. Jeez, even some of the fifth-graders are taller than me already. If this is some big cosmic joke, I’m not laughing.
My school wasn’t the largest in the city, but it was still a good size. It was a public school, located in one of the more respectable areas of town. There were certainly much less desirable schools I could have attended, but I’d learned that even in the best schools, there were problems. In my case, that was the bully squad: four guys who had made my life a living hell for three years.
I stepped off the bus, collected my course schedule and textbooks, and located the locker that had been assigned to me. I tried saying hello to some of my classmates, hoping they had forgotten over the summer that I was still an outcast. No such luck.
I locked eyes with Brent between second and third periods, and he smiled that horrible smile at me. No doubt he’d thought up a whole slew of new tortures he and his friends could inflict on me this year, and now he couldn’t wait to try them out. Maybe I should just stand outside the nurse’s office so I won’t have far to crawl after they’ve finished with me.
Back in sixth grade, the bully squad hadn’t been much taller than I was, but now they towered over me. Brent had packed on a lot of lean muscle over summer vacation, as had his buddies Derek and Phil, and I was still a hundred-pound string-bean. Even Randy, the smallest member of the squad, had gained an inch on me over the summer. The little twerp.
Sigh. Less than a day into the school year, and already the despair was setting in. I hated that feeling more than anything. I used to be such a positive, happy person. I had friends. I was everybody’s equal. Then the bullying and the false rumors took all that away from me. Now I can’t even remember what it felt like to fit in.
I was okay with the teachers whose classes I’d been assigned to, with one exception: Old Man Taylor for fifth-period science. Yay. It was obvious from the way he addressed the class that whatever joy he’d gotten from teaching had run out years ago, and now he was just counting the days until retirement.
When he entered the classroom, there were no “hello’s”, no “welcome back’s,” no attempts at courtesy at all. He’d simply grabbed his seating chart and said, “Everyone stand up and go to the back of the class … girls on the left side, boys on the right side. NOW.”
Alyson had warned me that he was always in a bad mood. The rest of my class must have reached the same conclusion, because we all silently obeyed.
“I’m going to start calling out names,” Mr. Taylor announced. “There will be one boy and one girl at each table. You will be lab partners for the entire semester.” Half the class groaned.
“One of the things I will be grading you on is teamwork. I don’t care if you know each other or not … you need to find a way to work together. If you don’t, your grade will reflect it.” Another groan.
Alyson had had Mr. Taylor as a teacher when she was in eighth grade, so I was prepared for this. It was actually refreshing to know it would be just as awkward for my classmates as it would be for me. I’d wondered all summer long what girl would end up stuck with me.
I had nothing against most of the girls in my class, even though they seemed to have something against me, besides a height advantage. As I stood at the back of Mr. Taylor’s classroom, I quickly scanned their faces, and there wasn’t a single one that I could expect sympathy from. When girls looked at me, if they looked at me at all, it was with contempt. All I could hope for was that I was paired with someone who had an open mind and a streak of kindness.
Two at a time, Mr. Taylor paired us up, until finally my name was called. My partner was Eve Devereaux.
I’d known Eve since the first grade, and in all that time we hadn’t spoken more than a few words to each other, as far as I could remember. All I really knew about her was that after years of spending nearly all her time with her longtime friends Emily and Susan, she’d finished seventh grade by hanging out instead with Rhonda, the most popular girl in school. How did that happen? Sometimes it sucked not being part of the grapevine.
I would have bet actual money she’d never dressed for school as stunningly as she had today. Rhonda’s influence couldn’t have been more obvious if they’d announced it over the P.A. system. She was even wearing makeup, and it made her look even more awesome. If only she wasn’t so out of my league. In a parallel universe, maybe I’d have a chance with her. Sure wish I lived there and not here.
In the past, Eve might not have objected to being my lab partner despite my unpopularity. She’d always seemed like a happy, friendly person before, but it looked like since the Dragon Queen had sunk her claws into her, Eve’s personality had changed, and not for the better. Sure enough, the moment Mr. Taylor called our names, she started complaining. Like, right in front of the whole class. “Can I have another partner? Please, anyone else? Anyone but him!”
But Mr. Taylor, the crusty old fart that he was, wouldn’t budge, so Eve and I took our seats next to each other at the table in the back. She immediately moved her chair as far away from me as she could, like I was contagious. I wanted to say something, but she was running with the popular crowd now, and the unwritten rules of popularity said that I wasn’t allowed to speak to her, or look at her, or breathe the same air as her, or whatever. We were being graded on teamwork, though, and we weren’t off to a very promising start.
Later that afternoon, I was quite surprised to learn that Eve and I actually took the same bus home. I had honestly never noticed that before. But then, why would I? The other kids always ignored me, including her, so nothing had really changed now that we were lab partners. Bet she doesn’t even know I’m here.
When I got home, I found Alyson in the living room, surrounded by textbooks. We were pretty close, I guess, being our parents’ only two children, but now that she had a driver’s license, a boyfriend and a heap of college prep courses to take, we didn’t have much time for brother-sister bonding anymore.
“Jeez, Aly,” I said. “And I thought I had a lot to do.”
“Hey, squirt,” she said, smiling. “How was your first day?”
I shrugged. “You know, same old, same old. How does it feel to be a senior now?”
She gestured at the textbooks that surrounded her. “This’ll be you in four years, you know.”
“Don’t remind me,” I said, heading down the hall toward my room. “Call me when dinner’s ready.”
I loved my room. It was where I spent most of my free time. It had everything I needed … a bed, a television, a stereo, a computer, a desk, and shelf after shelf filled with books. That’s really all I’d done for the last three years … read books.
I’d read like a gazillion books, some of them several times. It was my escape. I loved stories about heroes who fought evil, against incredible odds. Fantasy, action, adventure, sci-fi, graphic novels, anything I could lose myself in. I’d spent hundreds of evenings lying on my bed, imagining I was a dashing hero swooping in to vanquish the villain and save the day. If only real life was as exciting. Or bearable.
I’d even gotten into slightly more romantic stories lately, ever since I had developed an interest in girls. Guys in those stories always knew the right thing to say. I often wondered what they might have been like at thirteen. Brave warriors and knights had to start somewhere, right?
Sighing, I went over to the desk, dug out my textbooks and started my homework. Back to the routine.
Three years of hiding in the shadows. One more year of this crap and I finally can get on with my life.
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